Defend Truth


South African politics: It was always shades of grey


Stephen Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

The last few months have seen several people who have previously occupied high government office, or a senior leadership position in the ANC, lining up to attack President Jacob Zuma in particular, and the ANC’s current National Executive Committee in general. People like Sipho Pityana at Save South Africa, or General Siphiwe Nyanda (retd) or Gauteng ANC leader Paul Mashatile have strongly criticised the current ANC leadership. And yet, each of them have their own histories, which are not above criticism.

This will inevitably be used against them by Zuma’s allies when the opportunities arise, even though their past does not actually disqualify their criticism. Politics everywhere, and in South Africa particularly, is a grubby business, and it’s impossible to govern in this messy democracy and emerge completely clean-handed. Still, as in all politics, we have to choose, and must choose, between not necessarily the perfect options.

It is almost instinctive for humans to try t0 simplify people into “good” and “bad”. We see this all the time. Decisions or appointments made by Zuma can be slated even before he has finished announcing what he’s done; a worryingly large proportion of today’s chattering classes will be guided by identity politics, rather than what politicians are actually saying or doing. In democracies, political campaigning makes this worse. It’s effective to cast the other side in a completely negative light, until the good that they might have done is completely obscured. When both sides do it, divisions become so broad that people have difficulty seeing any residual goodness in the other side. There is probably no better illustration of this than the United States this February 2017.

So it is understandable that so many people have grouped around the straight-talking banner of Sipho Pityana. He is strong in his criticism of Zuma, he says what they don’t dare to say but is true, he says it with conviction, he’s the leading face of the movement, he has credibility.

But no one ever dare ask why on Earth he was so supportive of Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” on Zimbabwe. It was that policy, enacted while he was director-general of the then Foreign Affairs department, that led to the elections of 2002 (he left the department in 2001). And those elections, we now know, were stolen.

He is by no means the only Zuma critic with such a problem. Ten years ago, it was hard to hear the name Paul Mashatile without also thinking of was known as the “Alex Mafia”, a group of people thought to be unjustifiably benefitting from provincial government tenders. Nothing was ever proven, and of course he and the others were never charged. Still, the accusations were persistent.

The person lining up to criticise Zuma this week is General Siphiwe Nyanda, after his MK Council said they wanted the entire ANC NEC to resign before the party’s consultative conference in June. He is likely to get even more support as he prepares to take on Kebby Maphatsoe for the leadership of the MK Military Veterans Association. But he too was public enemy number one several years ago, when the company he ran won a massive Transnet contract. It was signed by Siyabonga Gama, who was then the head of Transnet Freight Rail at the parastatal. Gama was, at one point, “summarily dismissed” as he had over-reached his signing authority by quite some measure. At the time, Nyanda was actually Communications Minister, before he was fired by Zuma. And then he did something that virtually no one else in the ANC has ever got away with: he refused a deployment to an ambassadorial post.

It would be easy at this point to say that this shows that their criticism of Zuma rings hollow. It might be even more tempting to say that this shows that all politicians are bad, and a “plague on both their houses”.

But that would probably miss much of the reality of actual governance. If none of your choices are perfect, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make a choice at all. It is completely rational to make the choice that you perceive to be less bad. We all do this all the time, whether it be the choice between the cucumber salad and the cauliflower salad, or the tough decision between the treadmill or the circuit. It would be wrong to say that you should not do that in politics.

There is also a difference in the quality of the choices that some of Zuma’s critics have made. Pityana could argue that he did what he thought was right at the time, in foreign affairs what else can you do. It may be harder for Nyanda or even Mashatile to make that case, but their argument may still be supported in some way.

They would be on much firmer ground if they were to argue that while they do have “smolanyana skeletons” that doesn’t mean that Zuma is immune from criticism. If the strongest claim against Pityana is the issue of Zimbabwe, surely the claims against Zuma are much more serious (he didn’t “see the construction of Nkandla”, Nhlanhla Nene is still awaiting his letter of appointment to the Brics Bank, and the Guptas, the Guptas, the Guptas, and the little matter of mismanaging the economy, the empowering of the security cluster, and lying waste to pretty much anything he touched).

It may seem trite to make this point, but politics is always a choice between different shades of grey. And at the moment, there appears to be a concerted attempt to make it look otherwise. Someone, somewhere, perhaps at those lovely people, Bell Pottinger, or maybe at the Union Buildings, or even in KwaZulu-Natal somewhere, is trying to say that because one thing is bad, another much more horrifying thing is perfectly normal, and what’s more, cannot even be criticised.

It is entirely possible to accept that the personal histories of Zuma’s critics are not defensible. But it is even easier to accept that Zuma’s behaviour is immoral, corrupt, and bad for all South Africans. But here’s the crucial point: one does not exonerate the other. We must choose the ones with which we can live.

In real life, adults never get to really choose between two perfect options, they only get to choose between two flawed outcomes. That’s just how it is. And those who decide not to choose between them, and wait for an ideal candidate, will get what they deserve. In the US, many Bernie Sanders voters decided rather not to vote at all then vote for the “flawed” Hillary Clinton. They are now certainly painfully understanding the essence of this column is saying.

The issues that dogged us in the past, the creation of white monopoly capital, or the Thabo Mbeki years that ended in many ways disastrously, should not be allowed to cloud, and even normalise, the extraordinary moral and financial corruption of our present. It is just that simple. DM


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